Panel discussion seeks to clear up misunderstandings on Islam

March 28, 2006|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL


When Samia Malik immigrated to the United States from India 30 years ago, she did not know much about her own religion.

Born into a large extended Muslim family and educated in Catholic schools by Irish nuns, she grew up in an area with several religions.

"We celebrated Christmas with the Christians, the Hindu festivals with them and on our holidays, our family cooked and shared food with neighbors of other faiths," she said.


After she and her dentist husband settled in central Pennsylvania, she studied the Muslim faith.

"We were happy. It was wonderful," Malik said. "Then came 9/11, and pressure was put on us."

Malik spoke as part of a panel Monday at Wilson College's 43rd annual Orr Forum on Religion. This year's theme was "Islam in America: Challenges and Opportunities."

Malik said her two children were students at Penn State in State College, Pa., when the terrorist attacks occurred.

"There were a lot of hardships" for them, she said. "There were death threats. A friend of my daughter's was stoned."

Her daughter decided to start wearing the Muslim woman's head covering, and Malik soon followed. She added that some women stopped wearing their veilings at that time, and some Muslims even changed their names to avoid being targeted.

Also on the panel was Jamillah Karim, a religion scholar and writer and assistant professor of religion at Spelman College in Atlanta, and a specialist in Islam in America, women and Islam, race and Islam, and Muslim immigration.

A native of Atlanta, Karim was raised in an active African-American Muslim community.

"A common image America has is that Islam is oppressive to women, and they are compelled to cover" their heads, she said. While the Taliban is "a vivid example" of that, the Taliban is in the "extreme minority."

"Many Muslim women do not wear the hair covering until they come to the U.S.," she said. "These are independent, intelligent women."

Mary, the mother of Jesus, usually is depicted wearing a veiling, Karim added.

"Why do people not associate her veil with backward oppression?" Karim said. "Why are there negative images of the Muslim veil? The covering signifies spirituality, piety and purity."

While many outsiders think Muslims believe in jihad, or holy war, that is not true, Malik said.

"War is never holy. It is always horrendous," she said.

While war is allowed under Muslim law, certain criteria must be followed, she added.

"You must be oppressed, thrown out of your home or not allowed to practice your religion," she said. "One person cannot declare war. There must be a consultation with political leaders and scholars."

Some Muslims are "not applying the law in the right way," Karim added. "And people are interpreting the law who are not qualified to do so."

Malik said many Americans think of Islam as "foreign or strange," but the religion actually comes from "the Judeo-Christian legacy. We believe in the same prophets - Adam, Noah, David, Solomon and Jesus. We believe in one God; Allah is just the Arabic word for God."

More than 1 billion people belong to the Islamic faith. While many people think of all Muslims as Arabs, only 20 percent of Muslims worldwide are Arabs. Indonesia has the greatest number of Muslims, and China has 50 million. There are about 5 million Muslim Americans, one-third of whom are African-American, Karim said.

Cindy Marion, a resident of St. Thomas, Pa., said she attended the forum "to learn more about the Muslim religion. It was informative, and helped to clear up some incorrect information I had."

The free, all-day event questioned the assumption that Islam is foreign to American culture and explored the Islamic community's vital and growing impact on American society.

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